Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Date: 21st February 2014

Use and Abuse of Standards

To have standards or regulations imposed upon us means we all cannot succeed; some will make it and some will fail. It is by the nature of such measures that they must divide us into sheep and goats.

The only standards that we should really accept are those we willingly accept. Only the standards that we set for ourselves can keep pace with our own learning.

Of course society does need valid tests; but these should be as objective as possible. For instance, Charles Handy compared the UK’s driving test with its exam system:

  • The first test is objective, we take it when we are ready, and it tells us something useful – you really can drive – these kinds of tests are much harder for politicians to corrupt.
  • The second is a system of ranking, which we are herded through whether we are ready or not – and it has proved very easy to corrupt.

A driving test is a standard that we can measure ourselves by. Music exams have also remained robust – you take each Grade when you are ready to pass it.

But an exam system which seeks to grade us and which is also taken as measure of the success of the school or the area or the government becomes corrupt. Perhaps systems that try to test both the person and yet which are somehow taken as a measure of the system’s own successfulness seem prone to collapse under their own inner contradiction.

The Devolution of Blame

Now I don’t want to be misunderstood – I am not blaming Devolution, what I want to talk about is the opposite problem.

Emilie Whitaker coined the term “blame devolution” to describe, I think, the way in which bureaucracies or other hierarchical systems seek to devolve blame to the point of least resistance. For example, ‘Let’s blame the social worker.’

This fact corresponds to the principle outlined by my Greek grandfather-in-law, Petros Protopapadakis: The fish always rots from the head down. In other words, in any system, the likely point of responsibility for any failure will lie with its leadership.

There is a dreadful paradox which plays out behind these two truths: The centre tends to exploit the periphery, and so we grow to mistrust the periphery and try to push power and accountability to the centre. But we can end up with the worst of all possible worlds – more centralisation, giving the centre more power to abuse its power.

A better framework for dealing with such abuses is constitutional or legal. We must have rights to protect us form the abuse of power. And any necessary powers must be located with those who are best able to meet those rights. (This sometimes means central power, sometimes local and sometimes just personal freedom).

We must be on guard against the policy soundbite – the lazy assumption that decentralisation always means better. But at the same time we must also ensure that power and control are properly devolved outwards, as far away from the centre as is possible, and in a way that is consistent with our secure rights.

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